The Restoration IX: Letter-writing

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of The Four Marks as part of a series called "The Restoration." "The Restoration" is a monthly column dedicated to restoring Christian ideals in our modern culture. For more information on The Four Marks, please click here.

One of the benefits of moving frequently in my youth was the opportunity that it afforded me to have pen-pals. My most frequent correspondents were my 2nd grade teacher, Miss Jean Caskey from Nebraska, and my Godfather, Mr. Tony Jiggins. I had met her in Singapore while I was attending school and we kept in touch from the 3rd grade until the 8th grade, when we stopped writing (I honestly can’t recall why). He was at my baptism and, of course, we are still in touch.

My letters to and from these special people (and others) gave me a point of constancy in an ever-changing youth. That point of constancy helped contextualize both the rapid changes I was undergoing as a young man and my constantly changing surroundings (I was moving essentially every two years over a decade-long period). It is also a record I can go back to and read anytime. And I do, every few years.

I remember being excited to see my name on an envelope, knowing it was the next installment of an ongoing conversation. I would often tear a letter open with my fingers, not imitating my parents’ methodical and proper use of a letter opener (My mother would often proffer a letter opener to me or leave one on my desk in hopes of reforming me but alas, to this day I am a barbarian. Thank goodness my assistant is not). I would eagerly read the letter once through, quickly, to get the main points. Then I would savor it again, by reading it a second time, but this time slowly. After I made it through my letters (sometimes I got more than one letter a day, even more exciting), the letter would get put back in the envelope and put at the bottom of “the stack.”

The stack was on the right corner of my desk. It was correspondence I needed to return, and its very existence was a reminder to me to do it. The letter at the top of the stack had the longest interval since a reply so it would be attended to first. My mother having raised me properly, I had stationery, and would write back as quickly as I could. I had a 30-day rule, meaning if it was more than a month since I returned a letter I had to sit down as soon as possible and write back. I was 12.

Most 12 year-olds today could barely compose an intelligible email, much less a letter. It is not because, as many easily decry, that our youth are all vapid idiots. They are not (well, maybe just every youth on The Hills). They are just recipients of the legacy we have given them: we have destroyed letter-writing. Or rather, we have let it be destroyed right under us. And I helped.

I am an “early adopter.” As trends come and go, I am often among the first to try a new thing. When the internet and email first dawned, I was one of the first at my college to have a laptop and who was on the internet every single day. I encouraged those to whom I wrote letters to join me on the new exciting “world wide web”. For a while, we just treated it like a new medium for letter writing. We continued our correspondence, but online, and my new “stack” was my online email inbox. Since so few people had email back then, it worked.

But time, and the wave of the internet, changed any hopes I might have subconsciously had that my letter-writing system would stay the same. My correspondence (and correspondents) dropped off, until I am left with the sad fact that I confess to you today: I have none.

Sure, I send emails like anyone else. Sometimes long, meaningful emails. But despite whatever feelings they might express, in their cold, typed ephemera, they are as cold as cyberspace. Surely when they write the history of our times, if this world ever makes it until then, they will search among our meaningless twitter feeds, facebook status updates, and oceans of emails. But will they find anything as meaningful as a diary entry from a Confederate soldier, lamenting the invasion of his country and the end of everything he has known, or the letters of T.S. Eliot, who often scribbled illustrations on the tops or sides of his correspondence, or the simple “I love you” card my youngest sister inscribed to me when she was 6? I won’t wait for your answer. Nor will I wait to change this in one small way.

So, I’ve decided to work on my small corner of the universe. I am going to forcefully reintroduce letter-writing into my life. I’m not going to be too ambitious (I’ve learned from too many failed New Years’ or Lenten Resolutions). I’m going to start with my family first. Three sisters and my parents will be quite a restart after years of not writing. I only have thank-you note stationery (there is one habit my mother taught me that I have never lost, Deo gratias). I’ll have to order letter-writing stationery. I’ll have to re-remember what it is to sit down with a pen and paper and to thoughtfully express myself without a backspace key. I’ll have to set aside time to write, instead of buying into the canard that our tech-driven culture (technology was supposed to free us to have more time, remember?) hands us: being too busy. But in returning to letter-writing I’ll be doing what I did in my youth, and what men and women have done for millennia.

I know it will be hard. I’ll tell you how it goes. But I already know how much it will enrich my life. I’ll return to that place of my youth, and know it again, for the first time.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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1 Response

  1. Fr. John says:

    Dear Sir:

    I have recently come to the same conclusion, after having moved an elderly parent from the West Coast (where they had resided for twenty years, alone- by choice, you understand) to 'live with us,' only to have my progenitor pass away in sleep within three months of adjusting to life in the frigid winter of the Midwest.

    All during that time, I only received a birthday or Christmas card from my progenitor, and would have loved to have a record of observations, discussions, mementoes of history now flying past me as I try to remember bits and pieces said during that last six months together. My other parent wrote, from the day I left for college until their death. I found all that correspondence in a desk where I had placed them, when I left home, twenty years ago. There they were, a voice from the past still alive to this day. The one still speaks, the other is forever silent. And that is heart-breaking, as grief always wants to hear from the one that has passed away, however little there may be.

    I am therefore writing a journal to my children, chronicling both their and my growth and life, so that they will have a record of what their 'POP' said, at such and such a time. I admit this is a typed entry onto a hard drive, which I intend to print at each year's end, and then enclose in a manila envelope, to be given at their 18th birthday, as a present. But it's a start.

    But I think one needs to write letters, as well. This column reminded me of this, and encourages me to restore that bit of Christian civility in our household as well. Thank you for drawing me back to Christendom's praxis, in an era of studied, pagan mechanism.

    Fr. John